Those returning for a second helping of Eschalon are going to enjoy Book 2. This has now been released for the Mac so feign an illness and get yourself some uninterrupted gaming time to properly enjoy this well crafted offering from Basilisk Games.
Eschalon Book 2 is an old-school single player fantasy Role Playing Game played from a third person perspective. In other words you get to guide a little character around towns, fields and dungeons, directing him or her to fight monsters, cast spells and pick up treasure in the pursuit of various quests.
The game takes where Book I left off. There are many references to the previous game but while you are the same person from Book I, you start from scratch again having to build up your skills and attributes. You don't need to have played the first book. This time around you're living in Mistfell to the north of Thaermore, where the previous adventure took place.
There is always a fine balance with creating role playing games. On the one hand you want to simulate an alternate world in as much detail as possible, to help the players immerse themselves. On the other, you don't want to bore your players with mundane functions that they do anyway in the real world. Eschalon Book 2 definitely leans more towards the simulation side of things. It has a day and night cycle, rain and fair weather, hunger and thirst. I also somehow managed to pick up both a tape worm and a fever! I hope that’s not a reflection of my poor game playing hygiene. It allows you to complete freedom to roam where you will and attack what you will. So if you choose to hack down a character in the town, it might turn out later that they play an important role in a quest. So ask questions first.
With Eschalon being more of a hardcore RPG, there's not much of an introduction on how to play. So newcomers to RPGs might be a bit at a loss as to what to do. The game starts without much preamble, with you waking up in your home. For newcomers to RPGs I'd definitely recommend looking up a few hints and tips on the internet first. I'm also giving you a couple here; start with a fighter character and just get the Light Amour, Swords, Dodge and Cartography skills first up. Also unclick the need for food and water as well as un-checking the equipment deterioration check-box.
Visually the imagery is detailed with the focus being on clarity, so that the player can see what's going on. It's meant to be functional more than beautiful, although some of the woodlands and lakes are quite scenic. Also your little character on screen changes his appearance to reflect how he is equipped, which is a nice touch. The audio is also quite detailed, with separate sound effects for each action, background sound effects, like birds chirping, as well as background music. The background music is orchestral and works well to build tension.
Game play is relatively straightforward. Equipment is managed through an inventory system from which you equip your character. Movement is through the mouse, simply clicking in the direction of where you want to go. Interaction is similar; just click on what you're interested in. This is one of those games which can be played pretty well entirely by mouse. It has keyboard shortcuts, but if you have a hamburger in your left hand, it's not going to stop you playing.
So I have discussed how the game works, what about the adventure itself? Well you need patience and an appreciation for these sorts of games. The first few quests you pick up are pretty straightforward. Go here and kill that or retrieve this; that sort of thing. The first dungeon quest contains some puzzles to try work out how to open doors and find secret passages. To the novice these puzzles might seem obscure and might cause them to stop playing and go back to their x-box. But to the old-schoolers this is what dungeons are all about. There are a couple of tips here that help: The 'Spot Hidden' skill is helpful, as is a higher 'Perception' attribute, so that you can see the hidden triggers. Also to progress further in dungeons you sometimes need to have taken some prior action, like talk to a character in a town, so be careful not to kill anyone too early. I made the mistake of taking goods from a character's home. He attacked me and I killed him, only to discover later I needed him alive to get access to a dungeon.
There are a couple of negatives I'd like to mention. On the main screen there's plenty of room for additional information, like gold, or character level. It would have been nice to see gold there. Also movement speed is a little slow when you're just trying to get there. There is a fast travel option between towns which helps a bit. Automatic mapping improves with the Cartography skill and initially your maps look a bit crude. It's satisfying to see better maps being drawn as you get more skilled, but it seems a little unrealistic at first.
On the positive side the game has incredible depth, with a huge area for exploration. There are endless artifacts to collect and use and so many different combinations of character skills and attributes that you could spend a lifetime playing the game in different ways.
Overall I feel that the game has stayed true to its origin in old-school RPG. This might put off the newcomers a bit, but for the rest of us it's an excellent, completely immersive adventure with as little limitation on your actions as possible. I give the game 5 out of 5, as it is a great example of its genre.